Close encounters in unexpected places

When I look closely, I see a variety of people and cultures in many places – on university campuses, while travelling and in social settings. Then, when I look even closer, I realize different cultures are everywhere; the washroom of my workplace is a testament to this.

Within days of starting my new job, I met a woman who I’ll call Clara. It wasn’t too long before Clara and I were chatting in French, exchanging personal anecdotes and bonding over our common background. She’s a native of Quebec, and I’m an adopted provincial who lived in Montreal as a child when my family first immigrated to Canada two decades ago.

Eventually our friendship expanded beyond the perimeter of the office, and I found myself preparing dinner at her house – singing along to Dubmatique, Eric Lapointe and Ginette Reno. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the dynamics of our interactions would be as deep without this common past. More so than a profound attachment to our native province, we share a mutual experience of someone who has left the comfort and security of a language, tradition and family and friends, in order to venture west into the unknown.

Later, I came across Maricelle – also not her real name –

once again in the office washroom. Something about her intrigued me. It wasn’t the frequency of our run-ins – a common phenomenon among females in our office – but something I couldn’t quite put my finger on at first. The details of our initial encounter escape me. Did we use the weather as an icebreaker or exchange tips on curly hair styling methods? Within minutes we had forged a bond partly due to our curls, but mostly due to our common Quebecois past, Arab origins and excitement at the thought of being able to communicate in French. When I see Maricelle nowadays, our interactions often include a few jokes about her Quebecois accent, or some “weird” French expression I use. Puzzled looks and laughs are ever-present in our exchanges.

In the office kitchen, I met yet another person with whom I shared a common background. Kitchens are great, because they create an opportunity for people of various departments to interact in a less formal way. I’ll call this colleague of mine Lina. She’s a product manager at the technology firm we both work for and had given a demo following the release of a new product a few weeks ago. The technical jargon she employed during her presentation seemed to be accompanied by an accent.

So, as we were both cutting our perfectly ripened avocados in the kitchen one day, I asked her what I have been asked hundreds of times, “Are you originally from Vancouver?” She smiled and replied that she was in fact from Toronto. Was it the obvious unconvinced, and unimpressed, look on my face which led her to shyly proceed with, “I also speak French and Arabic. My parents are Palestinians, but I grew up in Toronto and studied French as my minor.” Canadian, French and Arabic – I had met my twin in the office kitchen.

Lina and I began to chatter away with such excitement only something or someone of equal or greater interest could have succeeded in interrupting us. Maricelle walked into the kitchen minutes later. “Lina meet Maricelle, Maricelle meet Lina,” I said. Within minutes, we formed this fun little trio of French-speaking Canadian women of Arabic ancestry who now call Vancouver home.

The idea of a Francophone club in our office was born from this encounter, as well as a future invitation to Lina’s house for a delicious meal – not a Palestinian one though. Instead, the menu will consist of pierogi, a recipe she has now mastered after many years of marriage to a Polish man.

The diversity in my workplace is just another piece of the puzzle that forms my identity. Am I French because it is the country of my birth? Canadian because it is the country my family adopted? Or American because I attended prom and football games for four years in an American school? Perhaps I’m an Albertan because I spent several months in the North of the province?

The daily interactions I have with my colleagues from across the globe serve as proof that a diverse identity is not a source of confusion but a source of interest and fascination. Let’s not forget it also makes for great office washroom conversations.